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Ole Miss students
aid poor in Belize

By Edwin Smith

Imagine living in a shack that sits on stilts over a lagoon filled with sewage and garbage. The only means of getting from one house to another is to walk on dangerous plank bridges.

This and other harsh realities—including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, poor nutrition and hunger—are what schoolchildren in poverty-stricken San Mateo, Belize, must face every day. These conditions have led compassionate University of Mississippi students into an ongoing effort to change the children's lives for the better.

In January, a team of 13 Ole Miss students and two professors traveled to the impoverished area for a three-week study abroad trip. While there, the students assisted the people of San Mateo in replacing the plank bridges with gravel and sand roads. Other activities included providing food for the workers, helping local women launch a cooperative sewing business, and taking social work and exercise science classes.

The work being done in Belize is an interdisciplinary effort between the School of Applied Sciences' Department of Social Work and the Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management. UM's School of Engineering also is assisting in the effort.

"Each student [was] assigned a child and a classroom to be a mentor-tutor and teacher's aide at the Holy Cross Anglican School," said Kim Shackelford, an associate professor of social work, who has traveled to San Mateo with UM students each year since 2008. "The social work students [learned] to complete assessments of children and families and intervention plans in an environment that has few formal resources but many informal resources."

The exercise students conducted physical fitness tests on the children and taught them about physical fitness, said Martha Bass, assistant professor of health, exercise science and recreation management, who also made this year's trip.

A poor community built on a lagoon near San Pedro, San Mateo includes more than 140 households. Most homes are 10-by-10-foot buildings standing on stilts. Residents walk on planks to get from one building to another.

"The construction of roads will remove a serious safety hazard for children and lead to wider access to water, electricity and sewage systems for thousands of San Mateo residents," Shackelford said. San Mateo's citizenry has become more close-knit since UM students volunteered to help improve its living conditions.

"The students' work in the past and current work brings the community together and encourages trust amongst each other and trust of persons from outside who want to help," Shackelford said. "Community school directors have told me that the empowerment of the community members has led to parents becoming more active in their children's education."

Ole Miss students who have become involved in the humanitarian program and its outreach describe their experiences as "eye-opening" and "life changing." Though several have since graduated from UM, many remain actively involved through the San Mateo Empowerment Project.

"It is very important for each new group of students to understand that the foundation of the project is the mutual respect and friendship between our two communities," said Jake McGraw, a senior public policy leadership and economics major from Oxford. McGraw helped establish the nonprofit organization, which has its own website and link on Facebook.

"This trip is an opportunity for the students to build the relationships with people in San Mateo that will sustain the SMEP in the future," McGraw said.

To learn more about the project, go to a or make donations at

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Social work and exercise science students traveled to San Mateo, Belize, in January to build roads and offer humanitarian assistance.

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